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How to Improve your LUNG CAPACITY with Exercises and High Fibre Food

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 24 April 2020
Hits: 6168

The past few weeks I have had several emails asking me questions relating to breathing and what are the best ways to improve lung capacity? I think people have become more aware of the importance of a healthy respiratory system with all the Coronavirus information spoken about on the news these past few months. Just like our heart we often don’t consider the important role our vital organs play in keeping us strong and well. It's not until we experience problems breathing that we take notice of our lung function. But the truth is, like the rest of our body, our lungs need daily care and attention. In this article I am going to share with you many interesting facts you may not know about breathing and lung capacity, but more importantly how you can improve it.

Improve Lung Capacity by Learning To Breathe Correctly

As I mentioned in the introduction we tend to never consider the important role of our heart and lungs until something goes wrong. This is part of our autonomic nervous system that regulates a variety of body process that takes place without conscious effort. This system is responsible for regulating involuntary body functions, such as heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, and digestion

It is one of those systems that is designed to never shut down meaning it is CRITICAL we know how to look after it.

It’s important to note lung function and lung capacity are different measurements which is something I did not know. The Lung Institute defines these terms as follows:

  • Lung function — A metric determined by the amount of air your lungs can hold and how quickly you can take in and release air from your lungs, as well as your body’s ability to oxygenate and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from your blood
  • Lung capacity — The maximum amount of oxygen your body can use

In simple language this means lung function is how your body uses air while lung capacity is how much air your body can use.

Notably, your lung function cannot be improved — once it’s gone, it’s gone. Your lung capacity however, can be controlled and improved.

Breathing feeds oxygen to every cell in the body. Without sufficient oxygen, people are more prone to health problems, including respiratory illnesses, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and even heart disease. But ordinary, everyday breathing isn't enough to keep the oxygen flowing through the body at peak levels.

There have been many studies completed on this before and experts at Rush University Medical Centre conclude.

"Lungs at rest and during most daily activities are only at 50 percent of their capacity," says Jennifer M. Ryan, PT, MS, DPT, CCS, a certified specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy. "Like the rest of your body, lungs thrive on movement and activity." Since regular day-to-day activity doesn't help you use your lungs to full capacity, you need to challenge the lungs with more intense activity. "And to help counteract the build-up of toxins and tar in the lungs caused by environmental pollutants, allergens, dust and cigarette smoke, you need to help your lungs cleanse themselves," Ryan explains.  

How exactly do you do that? If your first answer is exercise, you are partly right, but there are many other things you need to do before you try to exhaust yourself with running and other cardio activities.

Let's start with the simplest exercise and that is understanding how to breathe correctly. It is astounding how many people do not even know what a normal breath is and are breathing with poor mechanics all day long.

How to Use Diaphragm Breathing (Belly Breath)

A normal breath is where your belly will RISE on the breath in. I cannot tell you how many people I have seen who do the exact opposite of this! If you are breathing the opposite to how the diaphragm is designed you will develop a series of problems so it is vital to get this right before you do anything else. If you are not exercising your breathing should be in and out of the nose.

Some important facts about breathing that you might now know.

  • If you stop breathing you will have about 3- 4 minutes before you are dead!
  • Breathing maintains your acid-alkaline or pH balance
  • Helps in the breakdown of food (metabolism)
  • Greatly influences your posture
  • Acts as a key component for your stabiliser system to develop strength
  • Generates Cerebral Fluid in the spine, necessary for a healthy musculoskeletal system
  • Controls emotions

You must understand that because breathing is so important to us being alive, and in a matter of minutes of being without it we could die, the body ranks it above ALL other things. This means your body will sacrifice anything in order to get a breath. For example, if you have a broken nose and cannot get enough air your body will adopt a forward head posture to be able to get more air through the mouth. Even if this posture causes you to get a disc bulge in your neck that paralyses you, your body will still continue to use this posture for being paralysed is still better than being dead!

I highly suggest to read our article - Do you know how to breathe when you exercise for detailed explanations on everything to do with breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing uses the awareness of the diaphragm muscle, which separates the organs in the abdomen from the lungs. By concentrating on lowering the diaphragm as you breathe in, you'll get a much deeper and more prolonged breath which is the technique that professional singers use to increase their lung capacity to hold long notes. 

Learn To Breathe Through Your Nose

Mouth breathers can never truly develop their lung capacity for when you open your mouth to get more air it prevents you from creating Nitric Oxide. Nitric oxide is found in your nose, so when you breathe through your nose, you carry a small portion of the gas into your lungs. Mouth breathing is common to asthmatics and people with anxiety disorders who breathe too fast and with too much volume.

Nitric oxide plays a significant role in homeostasis or the maintaining of the acid/alkaline balance otherwise known as the PH balance within your body. Your nostrils have a smaller entry than your mouth which creates resistance resulting in smaller breathing volume along with calm and quieter breathing, whereas mouth breathing creates a dry mouth and bacteria. 

Carbon dioxide is not merely a waste gas. Although you breathe to get rid of excess CO2, it's important to maintain a certain amount of CO2 in your lungs, and for that, you need to maintain a normal breathing volume. When too much CO2 is lost through heavy breathing, it causes the smooth muscles embedded in your airways to constrict. When this happens, there is a feeling of not getting enough air and the natural reaction is to breathe more intensely. But all this does is create an even greater loss of CO2, which constricts your airway even further. A vicious cycle is now beginning to take place.

What you need to do is break this cycle before it becomes a habit by breathing through your nose and breathing less.

Deep breathing, by the way, will often make you feel a bit light-headed, and this is due to eliminating too much CO2 from your lungs, which causes your blood vessels to constrict.

Over breathing and mouth breathing also tend to go hand-in-hand with snoring and/or sleep apnea; conditions that decimate your sleep quality. The same remedy of nose breathing that works for asthma and anxiety sufferers works tremendously well for sleep apnea.

Here is an exercise you can try and is very easy to perform, and you can do it almost anywhere. This is an exercise that can help to keep the airways open for longer to help air flow.


  • Sit up straight. Practice good posture as it can help promote better lung movement.
  • Breathe in deeply through your nose in a slow, controlled fashion.
  • Purse your lips, which is much like making a “kissing” face where your lips are almost, but not quite, touching.
  • Breathe out through your pursed lips, making a goal of breathing out twice as long as breathing in. Some people may find it beneficial to set a timer, such as focusing on breathing in for 5 seconds and exhaling for 10 seconds.

This exercise can be helpful for someone who is not as physically active as some others and may not be using their breathing muscles as frequently.

For more detail on Nose Breathing I suggest to get the book "Close Your Mouth" by Patrick McKewon which is a simple book that explains how the Buteyko Breathing works.

Eat More Fibre if you want to Improve Lung Capacity

A study involving nearly 2,000 adults revealed low fibre intake was associated with reduced measures of lung function while a diet rich in fibre-containing foods may play a role in improving lung health.

Here is what they found:

  • 68% of those with the highest fibre consumption had normal lung function compared to 50 percent with the lowest fibre intake
  • 15% of those who ate the most fibre had airway restriction compared to 30 percent of those who ate the least
  • People who ate a lot of fibre scored better on two breathing tests, indicating larger lung capacity and the ability to exhale more air in one second

In this study, the high-fibre group was consuming 18 grams of fibre a day or more, which is still on the low end of what you should, ideally, be eating. A general rule is to make sure you get 20 to 30 grams of fibre per day. Reference:

One of the fastest ways to improve your fibre intake is using Psyllium Husk which is something I use everyday for the past 4 years and swear by it. I have one teaspoon of this every day added to my muesli for breakfast or in a drink later in the day. Below is a picture of the brand I buy but there are many others you can get. They cost very little and last ages. This one costs about $8 and will last me about 6 months.

As a soluble fibre, psyllium husk acts as a prebiotic that facilitates the nourishment of beneficial bacteria in your gut and helps improve immune function. If you remember our article on boosting the immune system we discussed how important the digestive system is and that it contains 70% of our immune building bacteria and cells.

People with Type 2 diabetes and those who are at risk of getting this disease may benefit from psyllium husk because of its potential to improve glycemic control. Studies suggest that it can assist with decreasing glycemic responses to meals and lowering insulin and blood sugar levels.

Psyllium husk is also said to help people maintain a healthy weight since it can absorb liquid in the body and induce a feeling of satiety. These effects may be linked to psyllium husk's tendency to be water-soluble and viscous.

Also make sure you stay well hydrated and drink plenty of water. Staying well hydrated by taking in fluids throughout the day helps keep the mucosal linings in the lungs thin. This thinner lining helps the lungs function better.

Apart from psyllium husk the best source of dietary fibre comes from vegetables which is great for they are easy to get your hands on and include in almost any meal. Unfortunately most people do not eat anywhere near enough vegetables, especially the green veggies that are loaded with anti-oxidants to fight inflammation.

There are basically two types of fibre:

  1. Soluble fibre which is found in cucumbers, blueberries, beans, and nuts, which dissolves into a gel-like texture, helping to slow down your digestion. This helps you to feel full longer, which can help with weight control
  2. Insoluble fibre which is found in foods like dark green leafy vegetables, green beans, celery, and carrots. It does not dissolve at all, and helps add bulk to your stool. This helps food to move through your digestive tract more quickly for healthy elimination.

Make sure you get a copy of our detailed report below that features everything you need to know about improving heart and lung health. I created this report to include ALL of the specific exercises and foods to eat for treating and preventing various heart and lung conditions. Click here to download your instant PDF copy.

How Vitamin D Improves Lung Capacity

It is amazing just how many times this comes up as a potential factor behind poor health problems. This was another important thing we featured in our immune boosting article for the Coronavirus as something we should aim to keep control of.

A 2018 Australian study showed higher vitamin D levels are associated with better lung function. A cross-sectional analysis of more than 5,000 adults — mean age 58 years, 45 percent males, 10 percent current smokers and 12 percent taking vitamin D supplements — suggests there is a link between serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25OHD) and respiratory disease.

The study authors stated, “Low levels of serum 25OHD were independently associated with asthma, bronchitis, wheeze and chest tightness … Higher vitamin D levels were associated with higher levels of lung function.” They noted participants with vitamin D levels of more than 40 nanograms/milliliter (ng/ml) had higher forced vital capacity than those with lower vitamin D levels.

What is the easiest way to get more vitamin D? Spend time outside in the sunlight. The older you are or if your health is compromised the more important this becomes. I suggest to read the article how to adjust your nutritional requirements as you age for more detail on Vitamin D and the best foods to assist in boosting this.

Using Exercise & Interval Training to Improve Lung Capacity

Finally we are looking at exercise. The reason I left this to last is that if you have a breathing problem exercise is often not very enjoyable and can even be dangerous. Even though it will help, if not used wisely it will only reinforce poor breathing mechanics and possibly ruin your association with exercise. This can happen to the best of us.

I remember back in 2013 I suffered a horrible sinus infection that left me with an infected eye. Weeks after the infection had passed I was terribly out of breath all the time even though I was running, cycling, and lifting weights all the time I just never seemed to improve. No matter how hard I trained I just seem to suffer more than normal and was constantly fatigued. I noticed how I was always breathing through my mouth and found it very difficult to breathe through my nose. That was the time I discovered the Buteyko Method and once I adopted this it changed my breathing within weeks and I was back to normal in no time. Prior to the sinus infection I was breathing through my nose, I just never noticed I was.

The reason I share that story is that exercise alone was not going to help me. I had to learn how to breathe correctly again. And once I did that I focused on getting my fitness back to its best as fast as possible and I did that by using interval training.

Adopting long slow boring cardio sessions where you are working at a low to moderate intensity will improve your fitness to a small degree and build great endurance but it will not improve your ability anywhere near as well as interval training. This is the secret to all elite athletes training program and is often referred to as VO2 Max.

It is their ability to last longer with little air that makes them better than the average. When there is a significant lack of air the arterial supply of oxygen is dropping, the spleen senses this and releases more red blood cells into circulation to improve the oxygen levels. The kidneys also stimulate a hormone called EPO to help mature red blood cells in your bone marrow. EPO has been made famous in recent years by cycling cheats for the effect on improving performance is profound. Eg Lance Armstrong.

I am not suggesting you need EPO, but you do need to train at high levels of intensity to get you to a point where you are completely out of breath to improve your lung capacity. The more uncomfortable the better.

I myself experienced significant improvement from running and cycling after adopting extremely high-intensity workouts. Sometimes these sessions only lasted 15-20 minutes but the effect on my performance was astounding. I used to hate running 800m intervals on the track for they hurt so much. Each interval would take about 2:45-2:50 and I would stand still for 2 minutes between each rep. On paper it does not sound that hard but trust me when I tell you 6-8 reps of these was more painful than any other form of workout. But I did them for the results were incredible. I only had to do this once a week to see massive improvements in my races for 5km, 10km and Triathlons that I used to do back then.

There are two videos below I suggest to watch for some great ideas for improving and assessing your fitness levels. The video on the left features an intense interval workout I liked to use a lot for improving overall fitness and strength at the same time. The video on the right shows you 3 simple tests to use to assess your VO2max and overall fitness level. This is great to do at the start of your exercise program and continually check to measure your improvement.

Make sure you read the detailed article on interval training as I explain all the variables you can use to structure your workout perfectly.

For people who have problems with breathlessness and shortness of breath while exercising, interval training may be a better solution than steady-state exercise. Interval training allows the lungs time to recover before challenging them again.

Lastly do not think you have to run or cycle to do interval training. You can create a great interval training workout using your favourite strength exercises in a circuit. Last year we did a video for combat sports and this was one of the most exhausting videos we ever did. We always experiment before we film the video and try it out to see how it works and flows. And I can tell you we were all smashed in the warm up and had to wait a while before filming the video as we were all too tired. We pulled rank and made the two young guys do the video.

Check it out below.

Want More Workout Ideas?

And if you want even more circuit workouts, strength programs and even cardio and sporting workouts, make sure you get a copy of the Little Black Book of Training Secrets where I share 101 amazing programs just like the ones shown in this article. Click here to see more about what is inside this special report and download your digital copy instantly.


There is a lot more to lung capacity and breathing than going out for a run or a fast walk. I hope this article gives you a clearer understanding of all the things involved in maintaining this very important function of our body that we tend to take for granted. It is only when we are in trouble that we pay attention to the little things and I hope the information I have shared with you today triggers you to take action.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your personalised online program. Click here to request more information and book a time.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


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